Postcard from Vermont: Learning to Waterski

I waterskiied when I was a teenager. At least I think I did, I actually can't remember. I know I knee-boarded and skurfed and possibly tried other water sports with silly sounding names, mostly on a creek in New Jersey that everyone calls a "crick", and mostly because my daredevil boyfriend-at-the-time wanted me to.

I would never say I love any of the water sports I've tried. In general, I don't enjoy going fast and I've avoided any activity that is even vaguely dangerous since I was a little girl. I've known this about myself for some time, I fully accept this: I go slow.

Some people's brains just aren't wired to like adrenaline
, I say, confident and a touch defensive. Some people get high from adrenaline, some people get anxious. Me? I get anxious. I prefer to go slow.

There are always good reasons not to downhill ski or take a turn on the precarious rope swing or leap off a perfectly good cliff into a pool of water. First it was: I'm a dancer and I can't risk hurting my legs. Then it was: I'm a massage therapist and dancer and I can't risk hurting my arms or legs. Now it's: I'm a mom and I can't risk hurting any part of me.

Next up: I'm too old. I might break a hip.

I have a girl who gets anxious too. But she really, really likes to go fast.

Faster! Higher! She cries at every opportunity. I don't understand how she can have the anxious part of me but also love the adrenaline rush of high speed, tall heights, dangerous moments.

We talked about it this week after her first time tubing. When the boat speeds up and you feel your pulse quicken, is that fear or excitement? I asked her, wondering about it for myself too.

Both, she said.

And it is.

I got really scared when I got in the water to waterski today, I told Z, in confidence, one anxious female to another. But I took deep breaths and I focused on the positive and I tried to clear my mind any time worrying thoughts entered.

And then I was waterskiing.

If left to my own devices, I do prefer to go slow. I would have been content to never waterski as an adult. If not for my daredevil husband and his siblings who wanted to feel closer to their waterskiing dad, I would likely have passed from this world without ever having done it again. Even after trying it this week and enjoying it in spite of myself, I will continue to avoid the fast, the high, the scary, the dangerous. And I will probably always get anxious.

But I'm realizing that can all be true and I can still go fast, sometimes.

I can stand up even when the fall is inevitable.



My favorite picture of them.

She says she won't ever forget him. She still regularly draws pictures of them together, of him alone in a field of grass, of him "as he looks now, wherever he is."

She looks at photos of him while teaching her sister to say the word "Papa", the name she gave to their grandfather who left us a year ago today.

Note the Scotch Tape all over this very good sport of a Papa.

We didn't know he wouldn't be there for more trips to the zoo, more Christmases, more birthdays. We didn't know our last visit with him was the last.

His gentle hand on her shoulder gets me every time.

She says she won't forget him but we know he'll fade in her memory. How can he not? She was four when he died.

I want her to remember how he used to lovingly call her "Zo", how he read her stories, covered in Scotch Tape because she wanted him to be "Tape Boy", how he spent half an hour in the bathroom with her when she was potty training and sang to her while she sat there.

And what can we say to E, who will surely not remember him at all? There is only one set of photos of him holding her, and I remember so clearly having to rush to get the camera to take them, because she clingy at the time and was sure to start crying at any second.

I am so grateful I got the camera in time.

She will hopefully see his smile and know something about his character and his love.

My father-in-law so loved his family, and while we grieve the loss of his presence in our lives, I grieve too the loss of his presence in his granddaughters' lives.

We've gathered here in Vermont, alone at my parents' lake houses, to remember him. We're eating his favorite foods, baking his favorite cakes, looking at pictures, lighting candles, telling stories, laughing and crying. Every time someone calls for "Dad" in this house, right now, it is my husband who answers, bittersweetly, all of us wishing he wasn't the only Dad here, now.

This time of remembrance is for his wife and his kids who miss my father in law daily and deeply and will do so for the rest of their lives. It is also for his grandkids, who may not remember him much at all.

We are teaching them to grieve, as we stumble through it ourselves.


Postcard from Vermont: The Peace of Wild Things

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


Little pieces of cotton

My dear friend from college is having twin boys this fall. So I picked through the trash bags and plastic bins of outgrown baby clothes I've squirrelled away in our basement, finding every stitch of clothing that might be reasonably worn by boys.

It all fits in a large duffle bag, which will fly with us to Vermont tomorrow so I can hand deliver them to her in Western Massachusetts. This feels good and right. I can't wait to see her babies in these clothes.

Two other good friends had baby girls in the past year. Earlier in the week, I sent off a box to each of them, filled with gently used, and gently wept over, baby girl clothes.

But there's all this left.

I safely stashed a few dozen of my very favorite pieces of clothing in a bin aptly titled "sentimental baby clothes". It is close to breaking, as it is stuffed beyond reason.

I like to picture these clothes being worn by a granddaughter one day. I imagine my girls as adults, seeing these clothes, feeling them, knowing that I cherished them in these clothes so much that my love is embedded in every cotton fiber.

There's another stash of baby clothes that I can't seem to part with despite their noticeable stains and worn knees. I have set them aside with the idea of making the spit-up free stretches into quilts. (I honestly don't know how I feel about "baby clothes quilts". I can't imagine my kids really wanting to sleep under one past the age of ...8? So am I doomed to store them for even longer, because not only will I have saved the precious clothes but I'll have spent copious amounts of time and/or money making a quilt out of them?)

I know there are baby girls out there who could use these clothes, worn knees or not. I am researching which local charities are best suited to take them.

I just need to get past this stumbling block: getting rid of my girls' baby clothes feels like giving away tiny pieces of my love for them.

Of course, I know my love isn't so easily disposed of and I also know this isn't really about baby clothes. It's about saying goodbye to mothering babies.

These clothes, even the stained ones, even the ones that I didn't like much in the first place, immediately bring back the feeling of a little warm body nestled against me in a sling. Each cotton onesie reminds me of wrestling with snaps during diaper changes; I can almost feel the pudgy thighs that depressed like risen dough with the tip of a finger.

These memories come flooding back as I finger the cotton dresses of their babyhood and I want to grasp those moments closer, just one more time.

A friend once advised me to clean up puke by convincing myself that it was cat food. It's just cat food is the mantra I've said every time our girls have had a stomach bug. It helps me divorce myself from my present reality just enough to do what needs to be done.

I tried a similar mantra today, folding a onesie and putting it in a trash bag. This isn't my love. This isn't my girls. This isn't their babyhood.

It's just a little piece of cotton.



I walked into the vast gym and stared at the way the dancers moved, confused. Nothing about their movements looked remotely familiar. Some dancers spun alone, lost in their own rhythm. Other dancers' bodies twisted around each other, pressing fleshy bits into bony bits until a lift happened, a leg took a ride on a shoulder, a head rested heavily on the crook of an arm. There was no noticeable step.

"You must be J. You're in the right place," a woman said striding toward me. I figured she was the dance company director that I spoke with on the phone. I had called everyone I could find in the phone book in a desperate attempt to find dance in western Maine and this was the best fit, a collegiate improvisational dance company which was open to members of the surrounding community.

"So this is improvisation."

"Yep. Jump in when you're ready."

I had been dancing for 18 years at this point, studying ballet, modern, jazz, and flamenco, performing for audiences large and small. I was comfortable with the dance I knew: there was a right and a wrong way to do things. I liked to know where I stood, even if where I stood was Not Measuring Up.

I couldn't remember the last time I had improvised anything. Maybe when I was four and dance class included scarves and moving to music however you wanted. All my training since then had been about molding my body into shapes specified by someone else. The counts mattered, the height, the speed, the rhythm, everything was specific and precise and external. Not mine.

In the gymnasium, surrounded by strangers, I started dancing by myself. I tried to move however I felt. I felt..... self conscious. Weird. Incompetent.

Without much thought, I started to fall into choreography I knew. When I glanced up at the director, she smiled knowingly at me.



E was a few weeks old. When I laid her on the bed to change her poopy diaper, I made a startling discovery: we were out of wipes. OUT. OF. WIPES. As in: not a single wipe in the whole entire house. Not in a car. Not in a tree. Not in my purse. WIPES, WHERE CAN YOU BE? (Sorry. Too much Dr. Suess.)

So I did the only logical thing: I sat down and cried and tried to imagine taking E to the store to buy more wipes with orange newborn poop oozing all over her car seat and I cried some more.

I had never run out of wipes before this. Ever. I viewed motherhood as some sort of long-winded boy scout test- I would always be prepared.

But this was during the first few weeks of a new baby, the first month of two kids, the first week of my husband back at work. What I'm saying is: this juggler was suddenly dropping many, many balls.

Then CG gently pointed out that we could just use moistened paper towels, as they are quite similar to wipes.

"But you are supposed to wipe babies with WIPES," I wailed, because I had read the books and followed the rules and knew the facts.

"Lots of people don't have wipes," he said, handing me a wet paper towel.

"Oh. Right." Right.


When I entered the dance studio, the first thing I noticed was the smell. Perhaps "stench" is a more appropriate word? When you read the words "dirty hippies" do your nostrils fill with the memory of unwashed armpits and dirty feet, with a lingering aftertaste of patchouli? Then that's about right.

Some dancers ringed the sides of the studio, sitting, drinking water, watching the action in the center. The action looked like... well, it looked like what I imagine an orgy looks like. People pressing into each other, hair and sweat and skin intermixing in strange and possibly unhygienic ways. Bodies were tumbling over one another, leaving, coming back, flinging themselves at a new partner. It was a dazzling, dizzying mess of dance.

This was my first Contact Improvisation jam in San Francisco. But I had done this before! Last year, in Maine! I could do this!

Before I even sat down, I was immediately invited to dance by a particularly sweaty man.

Um, is this how it works here?
Like a cotillion? Oooookaaaaayyy.

He started right in, pressing into me, giving me his weight, nudging me to give mine. I can do this, just goooo with it, I repeatedly thought as I rolled around with him, and also this: Whatever you do, don't press your face into his crotch.

When it was over, I smelled of him and, him of me, probably.

'You're new here," he declared, not a question, he was sure.


"Well, welcome. Enjoy yourself and don't worry so much. There's no right way to do this."

"Right." Right.


When I became a mom, I knew I had more than my fair share of anxiety about motherhood. But I was sure that my conscientiousness, my preparedness, my lifelong need to plan out a schedule, consult experts, bring small packages of snacks and water and tissues with me everywhere would all finally be put to use.

I mean, there were good reasons friends had jokingly called me "Mom" for years.

What I didn't know was that all my preparedness would be beside the point. That my small forays into dance improvisation had taught me more about motherhood than a lifetime of carrying snacks in my purse.


I was excited and a little nervous to take class with a new teacher from Europe. I liked her warm, easy manner right away and only flinched once when she told us the second half of the class would be improvisation. I had, after all, been improvising for several years by now.

I opened up under her kind gaze. She encouraged me to reach beyond anything I had done before.

At the end of the first week, she approached me after class. Would I like to work with her company on a performance piece? It would be loosely structured, mostly improvised.

"Yes, yes I would," I said, not having to think twice.


For the last three Wednesdays, Z and E and I have set out on Adventure Afternoons. I got the idea from a tweet of Backpacking Dad's where he mentioned it being "Adventure Day" and asking his daughter which direction they should drive.

I thought, well doesn't that sound like something a spontaneous, flexible, improvisational parent would do.

Too bad Z and E don't have one of those.

But I want to be one of those parents. And why can't I be?

I told Z we would start the next day: Adventure Afternoon. She could chose the direction we would drive and then we'd set out, looking for new places to go, new things to see. North, South, East, West.

Of course, I couldn't help myself: I researched it all first. I made lists of possible places in each direction, found their addresses and phone numbers, filled a bag with water, snacks, a camera, crayons, changes of clothes, WIPES.

First, Z chose South. Turns out, if you drive due South of us, you don't find much but farmland. But off we drove anyway.

Both hands on the wheel, crazy lady.

Just when things started to get a little hairy (There may have been whining about BOREDOM from the back and hissing about FUN from the front.), we happened upon the most beautiful little plant nursery complete with an awesome wooden ship and train for kids to play on. The girls exclaimed over brightly colored plants and became "fairy pirates" and shared some local apple/cherry cider.

Fairy Pirates still walk the plank.

Z exalted as we got back in the car: "We never would have found this without Adventure Afternoon! What will we find next?!"

Our next adventures (West and East) included trips to a roller rink, the best playground I've found in our area, an inflatable bounce gym, running through outside sprinklers and enjoying ice cream smoothies even though it was right before dinner.

I know this is the way some people live every day. I'm sure there are plenty of parents who don't need to set aside a specific afternoon for Adventure with a capital A. But for me, it's been a revelation.

I can still carry snacks and wipes and addresses but we don't have to know exactly where we're headed. We can follow our nose and whims, our intention clear and open.

We can improvise.



In dance, transitions should be invisible, devoid of noticeable effort. The moment between each step should not really exist, but since, of course, it does, it should exist in such an organic way so as to connect two disparate elements seamlessly. Truly gifted dancers do this naturally, their muscles and tendons seem to reach through their skin to find the next movement, keeping it all together as a whole.

My favorite dance teacher used to say: "Transitions are dancing; they are what keeps choreography from being a string of tricks and poses".

Not surprisingly, transitions are the hardest, most nuanced part of dancing.


From the last week of school, to the first week of camp.

From afternoon gymnastics classes and rigid bedtimes to afternoons spent with the sprinkler and hose and bedtimes pushed for BBQs or firefly catching or just because we didn't realize how late it was.

From air conditioning to steamy pavement to stuffy car and back again. From wet bathing suits to nubby towels to dry sundresses.

From just finding our stride and rhythm, to having to find a new stride, all over again.


Years ago, I attended a summer dance festival that culminated in a night of performances in a lofty barn surrounded by looming white mountains. Near the end of the show, a spot normally reserved for the most esteemed teachers, one of the students took to the stage, sweaty, beaming, alone in a halo of light.

He was clearly preparing for something monumental.

The music started and he just stood there in fifth position, gazing out at us and seeming to pulse with energy. Then he took off in a single movement, not a magnificent leap or a spinning turn or any of the latest tricks we all tried our hand at that summer. Instead, in the brief moment before the lights went out again, he executed one perfect "contretemps", a small, classical, normally ignored transition step.

The roar afterward was deafening.

For just a moment, there had been nothing but that one step, one that is usually forgotten, rushed through to get to the next thing. He gave every molecule in his body over to that moment and made us pay attention to the lowly contretemps.

"Transitions are everything," our teachers had been saying all summer. But it took this performance for us to actually pay attention and see.


Dropping Z off at her first day of camp, we are both immediately overwhelmed, overstimulated. Drop off is in a large basketball court, not the type of room exactly known for soothing acoustics, filled with nervous children, not the type of people exactly known for quiet calm.

She clings to me, asks me to stay and I don't blame her. There is nothing welcoming here, unless you find a teeming mass of children with backpacks welcoming. I stay, shooting plaintive looks to the teenage counselors who watch, disinterested or unaware, from the other side of the room.

Her counselor finally leads her group out the door, off to arts and crafts or music or, uh, 'smores? Z waves, wary, not quite ready to go to the next thing.

But the next thing is here and she must move toward it and I must let her.


I sit on the couch folding laundry and watching "So You Think You Can Dance". I am a bit twitchy as I watch, dying to dance like that, some of my muscles remembering how good it felt, others reminding me that much of it hurt, still others reminding me I was never that good, never, ever.

There are showboats on this show, dancers with big leaps and turns and legs always extended up to here. They want to catch our eye, impress us. This is TV, after all; there is very little room for nuance.

I am impressed, not by tricks, but by the dancers who move through each movement as if propelled by tidal forces barely within their control. They ride those waves with a potent mix of abandon, trust, and curiosity. Whoa, yeah, and where does this lead? They make it look easy, every trick, every transition, just flowing out of them, each movement as effortless as the last.

I stop folding and just watch.


I pick Z up from camp, leading her out the door by the hand, E perched on one hip. Z prances to the car, bubbling over about a new funny song and the "orgamami" they did in art. We are all smiling.

But when we get to the car, she winds herself quickly into a fit. I didn't bring her any water for the 5 minute car ride home and she's THIRSTY and her water bottle is EMPTY. It's HOT IN HERE. NOOOOOO, I DON'T WANT TO GET IN MY CAR SEAT. WREAAAAAAA.

I can feel my jaw tighten and I fight the urge to forcefully move us on to the next thing: carseats, home, lunch, nap/quiet-time and on and on and on. These moments, caught between different parts of our day, between one world and the next, one activity and the next, they just don't come easy for Z. Or me. It seems she struggles every time to change gears, to let go, to accept what's next. I struggle every time not to rush or ignore or force.

I close my eyes and wait a breath, half listening to the tantrum I am still learning that I cannot end or control.

I tell her plenty of cool water is at home, the AC's coming on now, let me know when you're ready to sit in your carseat. And then I wait, arms vaguely open if she wants help or a hug.

It takes just long enough for me to question my approach. Then she's in her seat, wiping her tears, ready to go.

Ready for the next thing.


We are learning to ride these transitions together. They matter. They are a part of our lives that I am learning to shine a light on. They seemed inconsequential, unimportant, unworthy of my time and effort.

But Z has shown me that transitions are not to be ignored.

It is my hope that, one day, we will both approach them fearlessly, navigate them seamlessly, with abandon, trust and curiosity. Like the very best dancers.

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